VIENNA, JULY 3 -- The city of Vienna has carried out a controversial modification of its monument commemorating the victims of the Holocaust, covering the statue of a prostrate Jew with barbed wire in order to put a stop to tourists using it as a park bench or picnic table.
The bronze figure, centerpiece of the monument erected in downtown Vienna in November 1989, recalls how many Viennese turned upon their Jewish neighbors and forced them to scrub the streets after Austria's annexation by Nazi Germany 52 years ago. More than 60,000 Austrian Jews were later killed in or on the way to death camps.
Sculptor Alfred Hrdlicka set the statue amid chiseled chunks of granite from the Mauthausen concentration camp, intending it as a way to prod his fellow Austrians to come to terms with one of the darkest chapters in their country's history.
But last month the statue was removed from the Albertinaplatz site next to the State Opera House after a vandal covered it with paint. Its return was delayed for several weeks after members of the Jewish community and municipal administrators voiced distress that foreign visitors, apparently oblivious to the its significance, repeatedly sat down atop the bronze figure.
Filmmaker Robert Polak documented how these tourists often chose to eat ice cream cones or pose for snapshots while relaxing on the bearded Jew, his head covered with a skullcap.
To thwart such awkward irreverence, the city commissioned Hrdlicka to alter the statue. He did so in less than two weeks and workers brought the figure back to the Albertinaplatz monument on Monday, its back embedded with bronzed barbed wire. The sculptor likened his remedy to the "crown of thorns" worn by Jesus Christ. "Barbed wire is the crown of thorns of the Jews," he said. "After the Jews were forced to scrub the streets, they disappeared behind barbed wire."
In an additional move to thwart abuse of a monument conceived as a place for contemplation and reconciliation, plaques spelling out the historical background of the monument are shortly to be put up in six languages.
Although Ursula Pasterk, the city councilwoman responsible for public monuments, praised Hrdlicka's modification, it appears unlikely to quell the stormy debate surrounding the work. Some in Vienna's surviving 6,000-member Jewish community have long opposed the statue, seeing in it an antisemitic caricature of the Jew as portrayed in Nazi propaganda.
The modification brought swift criticism. "I could live with it the way it was before. I'm not sure I can live with the changed thing," said Jewish Community President Paul Grosz. "There are too many symbols one on top of the other... . This is likely to strengthen those who would not like to see it there at all."
Stefan Templ, a Viennese designer of Judaica, said after visiting the site today, "It now resembles a wild animal who has been captured." Author Peter Sichrovsky, in an editorial in the Vienna newspaper Der Standard, called the adapted monument an "authentic perversion" whose aesthetic conception had provided painful embarrassment rather than a place for Austrians to express sorrow over the past.